In order to breed “fearless” warriors, the Army requires commandos to free handle snakes or deploy crude sticks to subdue them during training for jungle warfare. “Catching a snake for a soldier is as easy as holding a rifle,” declares a commando instructor in an Army social media campaign while another publicity blurb proclaims that familiarity with venomous snakes “obliterates fear from the mind of students (commandos) thereby increasing the confidence that they can survive in any situation..”
However, the practices involved in such training are outdated and may not be beneficial to soldiers or fair to serpents. Nikhil Sanger, who is an award-winning snake-rescue expert, was requested by the commandant, Special Forces Training School (SFTS), Nahan, to review its captive snake management, training methods and ‘’supply’’ Spectacled cobras, which the SFTS lacked. The SFTS is a major training centre for the Parachute Regiment.
To his dismay, Sanger found that reptiles kept in the SFTS’s Snake Hut (converted from a rain shelter) were in miserable condition, bearing stress/injury marks due to repeated commando handling. The captive snakes --- Rock pythons, Rat snakes and Russell’s vipers --- were offered chicken pieces, which is not advisable as serpents prefer live prey. Commandos grip snakes by the neck, which can induce the serpent to coil tightly around the arm and bite the distracted handler.
‘’Three SFTS personnel had been bitten by venomous snakes during training in past years,” Sanger told this writer. Neither did the SFTS have permission from the Himachal Wildlife department to capture snakes. This is an anomaly as an Army HQs circular explicitly bans collection of wild species for Army zoos/captive centres. “In captivity and with such rough handling, snakes die, are discarded and fresh ones caught for training,” Sanger said. He counselled SFTS officers that handling captive snakes, which were depressed and feeble, was not an apt training for snakes encountered in the wilderness as the latter were like ‘’live-wires’’. He also advised against free-handling of snakes and using improvised sticks because if a commando was bitten in deep jungle, anti-snake venom serum would be too far away to save his life. DFO, Nahan, Nishant Mandhotra, told this writer: ‘’We have not given any permission to SFTS for capture of snakes or keeping them in captivity. I will have this matter inquired into at the earliest.’’
A TIGRESS CHARGES
Manimajra-based wildlife enthusiast Harmit Ahuja has reason to be flush with excitement. He was witness to an extraordinary display of tigress rage. She twice mock-charged an elephant carrying tourists and then chased off a Maruti Gypsy down the dirt track like an irritable stray dog hounding a car. This took place last month in the Dhikala zone of Corbett National Park. Ahuja filmed two videos of the tigress, which when put up on Youtube, attracted instant attention and ire. Ahuja is gracious enough to admit that tourists blocked the tigress at two points in a matter of five minutes. The tigress was very hyper as she was probably hiding cubs in the vicinity and felt severely threatened.
Tourists versus tiger privacy is an old debate. We also know how tour guides --- when bribed to produce a tiger show at short notice --- discard every norm and manner by literally barging into tiger residences with hordes of uninvited guests and overstaying his lordship’s hospitality and noble patience. One of India’s foremost authorities on tigers, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Dr K Ullas Karanth, was disturbed when he saw Ahuja’s video (viewed 2,27,250 times) and titled, ‘Tiger attacks elephant in Jim Corbett (Dhikala) on 17th Nov, 2016...NEVER SEEN BEFORE’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cnHW-bmBjE).
“Clearly, the tiger was stressed (notice the flattened and twitching ears), hoping they would move away, and finally did a mock charge to scare them. Then she bolted. I do not think tourists should approach so close, stay so long and chatter continuously as these folks on elephant and vehicles were doing,” Dr. Karanth told this writer.
THRUSH IN SACRED BRUSH
The Mangar Bani is an ancient and sacred grove of 500 acres situated on the Gurgaon-Faridabad highway. It figures in the news as much for its biodiversity as for the creeping incursions launched by colonisers in nexus with devious officials and slanted government policies. That this priceless lineage of evolution needs protection against all odds was underscored by the discovery of the migratory Song thrush on December 11. It seemed to be “raining thrushes” at Mangar Bani because birders also observed the Orange-headed thrush, Black-throated thrush and Scaly thrush. However, what stole the “thrush thunder” at Mangar was that the sighting of the Song thrush was only the third or fourth instance that this vagrant has been recorded in India.
Praveen Jayadevan of ‘Indian Birds’ is the co-author of a learned paper on ‘Indian Rarities’. After delving through his records, he told this writer, “The first record of the Song thrush was from Tikse, Ladakh, (November 24, 1981, by Clive Denby), which was an extremely well-documented one, seen for three weeks and finally mist-netted, photographs taken and measured. Then, 15-17 February, 2002, is when Bill Harvey reported this bird from Harike.” Jayadevan cites another claim of the thrush from Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, but was unable to furnish precise details.